“[C]ollege students really don’t work that hard, on average.”

So concludes Chad Aldeman in this post on The Quick and the Ed, and the cited data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics support the claim: on average, full-time college students put a little more than three hours per day into education, for a total of about 16 hours per five weekdays. As Aldeman points out, this does not include work they do on weekends. I believe that Grinnell students do much more academic work than the average, for a variety of academic, cultural, and socioeconomic reasons, but that’s not my reason for posting.

Aldeman cites these statistics as part of an effort to deflate “the face-to-face gold standard”; he points out that comparisons of classroom and online learning sometimes reveal that some studies show online courses producing superior learning outcomes, sometimes (as Sara Goldrick-Rab puts it) “because the amount of actual instructional time in online courses is greater than that in classroom settings.”

My question is this: what would the data look like for classroom courses with substantial online components, components that do create increased instructional time outside of class? Do online activities replace other kinds of instruction, or do they increase the overall time teachers and students spend on classroom-based courses? Reader, have you any thoughts?


Courtney Sherwood · August 29, 2009 at 8:15 am

I’ve taken three online classes – two in economics and one on database programming — through a local community college. I felt that the learning experience in each case was great for me, but I think the results will vary a lot depending on motivation, learning style and subject matter.

Caring and engaged professors are a hallmark of a Grinnell eduation, but I also feel that I got a great deal of teacher attention through my online classes. It was easier to ask professors about difficult subjects when I could do it in writing, and thus take time to word my questions well. Not having to look like a fool in front of physical human beings helped me get over my fear of looking stupid. Online questions are also unbound from the constraints of office hours. I could submit something at 1 a.m., and the professor could respond at 2 p.m., if that was how our schedules worked.

TheGnat · August 31, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Honestly, I kind of question the results of that study. I’d like to know what their sample was. Even when I went to the University of Iowa, which is notorious for it’s drinking culture, I was fairly certain the student body was, on the whole, spending a significant amount of time at their studies. This study would indicate that on weekdays, students *must* be skipping a class or two, every single week.

I have had a couple courses with online components. I generally felt that these components were a nuisance and a distraction. In the case where there was no minimum participation required in the online activities, most of the students didn’t participate at all (and it was also, ironically, the one set of activities I felt would actually be useful). In the cases where the online components replaced what would have been class work, it lead to less depth of understanding, without really impacting how much time students were spending on the course. In other words, there was a trade off. If they participated in an online requirement, they might then not do any of the readings that represented an equal amount of time or energy. Or perhaps, skip a class. Less…audacious, I suppose, students would sometimes skip *because* they were embarrassed by not engaging in the assigned online work.

Online activities as part of the classroom can be a great learning tool. Unfortunately, it’s still in the “fad” phase, which is detrimental to learning, and will probably lead to all kinds of studies showing how great online education can be, because quite honestly, this kind of data is very susceptible to subjective interpretation. Statistics, after all, can say anything you want them to, if you do things correctly.

Nathan · September 4, 2009 at 3:32 am

Like TheGnat, I’m skeptical about the results without a better picture of who was surveyed and how. Most of all, why only weekdays?* If students kept a 24-hour diary of their activities, it would have been simple to assign some students to track a weekend day and construct an average week, rather than an average (week-)day.

However, let’s grant the survey methods for the sake of argument. The students aren’t just sleeping, skimming their homework, and playing video games the rest of the day. Their time spent on the combination of academic work and paid work is 6.2 hours. While that’s not exactly a grind, it’s 32 hours a week (plus weekends). Considering that most financial aid offices expect at least half of that time in paid employment, the expected academic workload can’t assume that students work only at their studies. I still spent more time on that combination at Grinnell, but then I didn’t sleep 8.3 hours on the average night either.

Also – and this may be a little nitpicky – how much time do students spend on online courses? If we don’t know that, there’s nothing to compare with our face-to-face slackers.

*Obvious but insufficient answer: because the BLS compiled the statistics and the government must think people only work Monday-Friday. Which they don’t, last time I checked.

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *